The shrinking of Madras Lane
By Debra Chong
JULY 26 — The signs were there. Hanging above the hawker stalls, swinging slighty in the breeze coming from the steaming hot pots, each plastic board proclaiming their individual specialities: Famous Madras Lane Chee Cheong Fun, Madras Lane Curry Laksa — and the most prominent — Madras Lane Yong Tau Foo! The entire place was a tight huddle of eight food and drinks stalls.
Yet the rusty signboard nailed to the beam outside stated differently. In fading letters, it read "Penjaja Gallery Jalan Sultan".
Confusing? You bet. But such is the way of life in this corner of Southeast Asia where things come bearing assorted labels. A road, for example, is known by different names depending on the ethnicities of the people that ply it.
This tiny, extremely narrow hawker centre off touristy Petaling Street, also known as Jalan Petaling (its official name in Bahasa Malaysia) and Chee Cheong Kai (in Cantonese) in Kuala Lumpur's Chinatown, is no different.
"The name came from the nearby Madras Cinema. It used to be where the parking lot is now," says Chia Ai Lian, pointing to a spot some five metres behind her stall.
Ai Lian, in her 40s and her elder sister, Me Lim, 60-plus, are second-generation hawkers at Madras Lane. They've been stationed there for over 30 years, having inherited the very stall from their mother.
Ai Lian stops dishing out piping hot bowls of curry noodles from behind a counter congested with mountains of cockles, stewed long brinjals, taupok and a large basin of chicken curry and another large basin of long bean curry to give me a brief history lesson of the area.
"This place has been around for over 50 years. Madras Lane used to be much longer, going all the way till the end of the road down there," she points again, this time to the concrete alley outside the roofed structure, which swings out of sight behind a leafy plant growing out of a crack in a wall.
It used to be an open space too, she reminisces. The hawkers all operated under giant umbrellas to shield them from the sun and the rain. They were open all day. Then, the customers comprised housewives doing their daily marketing at the wet market next door to the late-night moviegoers flocking to the cinema.
And then the cinema burnt down in 1979, or was it 1980? Ai Lian forgets. She turns to ask her chubby-faced neighbour, the chee cheong fun seller.
"Hai, hai, hai, it was 1979 or 1980. I also cannot remember," Wan Siew Yee chips in excitedly. Though she was no help with the date or details, Wan is a wonder when it comes to the colourful details. She remembers clearly the fire that broke out in the cinema had quickly ravaged the building despite the firemen's best efforts to put it out.
"This place was being renovated then. They were making a cement floor… it used to be a dirt floor. All the hawkers had to move away to the other side near the temple, which was not so good for business because it was too narrow, so I decided to open up a temporary stall closer to the cinema, but it was very hot and I got very dark from standing in the sun. Hahahahaha!
The garrulous woman is an animated storyteller. She tells us how she is the third-generation in the family to run a chee cheong fun business. It started with her husband's grandfather — that's right, she married into the family and the business in1977 — who already had a stall in Kampar, Perak. Business there was not good, so he decided to move to KL and uprooted his entire family in the process.
It proved to be a wise choice on his part. Until that fateful fiery day, Madras Lane was a miniature boomtown.
Wan calls out to K.K. Ngeow, 42, the only yong tau foo seller in Madras Lane, to join in the storytelling. Bathed in sweat, he seems a tad reluctant at first but does as she bids anyway. He is straight to the point. "Yes, what do you want to know?"
We tell him: your background story. He replies: he is also third-generation. His grandfather set up the stall in Madras Lane, his father took over the business after grand-dad passed away, and he himself became boss two years ago when his father decided to retire permanently. He was initiated into the family trade at age 10 when he was in charge of washing the vegetables and dishes. He continued to help out after school hours and during the holidays. Then, he stops, awaiting the next question.
Seeing our puzzlement, he tries to explain. The fish paste for the yong tau foo stuffing is made fresh daily. They use only saito, what the Malays call ikan parang and the English know as wolf herring, because the fish forms a natural starch when sliced by hand and whipped. It gives a nice, smooth, elastic texture to the fish paste and that is what makes the ideal stuffing for the yong tau foo.
It is different if the fish is machine-sliced. The machine essentially squeezes the water out of the fish and mashes everything up, so that the end-product is a dry, flaky paste and makes poor quality yong tau foo.
A queue forms quickly at Ngeow's end, slithering out into the alley and snaking back in behind the yong tau foo counter. It is by far the most popular stall — each piece costs only 80 sen. The other stalls aren't shabby either. There's hardly any space to breathe, let alone sit. Some don't bother and eat standing up. The heat is intense, but the food is delicious, hearty, warming, a great relief after four hours stuck in a popsicle office.
Just as suddenly as they appeared, the horde is gone, sated. A handful of diners, looking suspiciously like lost tourists, mill about. Some of the stalls start washing up. Most of their stock is gone. The Chia sisters' piles and piles of side dishes are wiped out. Ai Lian shrugs and says, "This is normal." The hawkers open for business at about 7am and close by 3pm, after the lunch crowd disappears, and they go home.
The grimy clock at one end of the hawker centre, closest to the dingy, claustrophobic market, reads 2.30pm.
Wan says that's how it is these days. Sundays are a bit better, they get families from out of town who grew up in the neighbourhood and come back for a taste of nostalgia. But business isn't what it was like before the cinema burnt down. After that, well, things just got worse.
Rent in Chinatown skyrocketed. Back in those days, you could get a whole house for about a hundred dollars, says Ai Lian. It was so convenient then, you live upstairs, and you work downstairs. Now, you'd have to pay thousands of ringgit for a small space. That's why the shophouses have turned commercial.
Most of the hawkers here today grew up in the neighbourhood, Ai Lian adds. She used to live here with her seven siblings, watching her late mother single-handedly raise the family after her father died, all on her curry laksa income. "Mother didn't know any other skill and curry laksa was her specialty."
A decade or so ago, rent got too expensive to afford, and many moved out. They closed shop and opened up closer to their new homes. The Chia sisters moved out to Puchong, but continued to sell curry laksa from their mother's spot.
"Because people know this place. If we sell elsewhere, we'll have to start all over again. We're not young anymore," says Ai Lian.
In Ngeow's case, he doesn't want any of his three children to follow in his footsteps. "It's not easy to do this. My job is to work hard and make sure they stay in school; their job is to study hard and only if they cannot study, then can enter the family business."
But the ebullient Wan has other plans. She wants to build a chee cheong fun empire under the brand name "Madras Lane Rice Noodles", and she's already started. The family's secret sauce recipe that was taught to her, she has passed on to her mother, sister and daughter who dish out the same dish at three different locales in the Klang Valley: Bangsar, OUG (Overseas Union Garden) and Old Klang Road. She's even made them wear some sort of uniform when they work.
The days of that famous hawker centre in the dinky, little alley may be numbered, but who knows, another Madras Lane might pop out elsewhere, like a George Lucas production.